And it hurts worse when you outplayed your opponent but still emerged with the "L." When that loss ultimately contributes to keeping your team out of the playoffs?
Yeah. Mega ouch.
Mike Hilton confirmed all this at the end of the Steelers' playoff-less 2018 campaign:
"The one I feel like really got to us was the Chargers one," he said. "We're up double digits in the second half. We close that one out, our season goes a lot different."
In that one, a 33-30 defeat in Week 13 at Heinz Field that dropped the Steelers to 7-4-1, some flat-out wackiness occurred. There was this, a blatant false start that went uncalled and led directly to a Chargers touchdown (P.S. note who ultimately got torched deep):
Or this, an even stranger touchdown for the away team. Two Steelers — Sean Davis and Joe Haden — have a reasonable shot at making a play here. An interception is likely. A massive hit is, too. A simple pass deflection? Definitely on the table.
Instead, though, Davis and Haden collide, and the ball ricochets into the outstretched hands of Keenan Allen for six. That improbable set of circumstances had to unfold perfectly for Allen to score here. And they did:
It wasn't just that, though. It was leading 23-7 at halftime and dominating the action until a late, franchise-worst collapse at home. Prior to the defeat, the Steelers were 174-0-1 when leading by at least 16 points at the half at home.
So, yeah, as this year's Steelers squad heads to Los Angeles for a rematch with the Chargers Sunday at Dignity Health Sports Park, there are some lingering feelings. At 1-4 though, the Steelers are desperate for a win. Period. It's not even about revenge when the struggle is this real.
"I wouldn't look at it as a revenge game," Hilton was telling me Friday at the Rooney Complex. "It's the most important game because it's the next one. We're sitting at a tough record right now, so any wins we can get, that'd be good. Especially going into our bye next week. So we gotta just go take care of business."
Ramon Foster summarized the situation using even clearer terms.
Like the Steelers, the Chargers, at 2-3 and third in the AFC West, need a win at any cost. That fact overshadows anything else in this matchup.
"I think, considering the circumstances, it's not a revenge game," Foster said. "It's a survival game more than anything. That's how I look at it. They're technically in a better spot than we are right now, [but] they're looking for survival, too, at this point. I think both teams are in two different spots to say this is a revenge game. Now, if we're both 4-1 or 5-0? We can talk about that. But not right now."
How about Bud Dupree, who had a quiet four-tackle, no-sack, no-quarterback-hit performance in the last one? He's gotta be ready to show up in a bigger way this time around, right?
"Yeah, you're still going to have it in your mind," Dupree was telling me. "I wouldn't necessarily call it 'revenge' but just because it's an AFC game, any time you're playing an AFC team, it's that much more important ... It's going to be a hard, physical game. There's going to be a lot of energy going on. We're in their stadium. They came all the way here last time. So it's going to be fun."
Both Hilton and Dupree noted the challenges presented by this Chargers team. While Allen's touchdown highlighted above might've been a bit flukey, the rest of his game was anything but. He snagged 14 passes for 148 yards, torching the Steelers defense time and again. When I asked Dupree who specifically he looks forward to seeing again from that Chargers offense, he didn't hesitate.
"Keenan," he fired back. "I'm ready to see Keenan and [Joe Haden] matched up. It's going to be fun. He's a great receiver. Joe's a great corner, one of the best of all time, so that's going to be a great matchup. Up front, too. Me and [T. J. Watt]. [Stephon Tuitt] and [Cam Heyward]. Wobble [Javon Hargrave]. It's going to be a good time just going against that offensive line and trying to wreak some havoc."
This 2019 Steelers defense has certainly wreaked havoc for opposing offenses. Their 19 sacks rank third in the NFL, trailing only the Panthers' 20 and the Patriots' 25. Even there, though, Dupree says they haven't hit their ceiling as a unit.
"We still should have more sacks than we have," he said. "We're still missing sacks along the way. So if we do that and keep moving, we'll be fine."
Then there's the matter of Philip Rivers, a future Hall of Famer who has become the last man standing from the stellar 2004 NFL Draft crop of quarterbacks. With Eli Manning benched in favor of rookie Daniel Jones and Ben Roethlisberger out for the year with an elbow injury, it's up to Rivers to carry the class' torch in 2019.
And facing a guy like that excites Hilton — this year and every year.
"Hall of Fame, you know?" Hilton said. "You get a chance to go against a Hall of Famer, you want to be able to prove that you can keep up with him."
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